Sunday 22 April 2018

Michael and Amelia's equestrian adventure

Reporter David Medcalf found that riders from all over the world are being drawn to Glenealy for cross-country outings with Michael Dawnay and Amelia Bailey

Amelia Bailey at Ballinaberney Stud
Amelia Bailey at Ballinaberney Stud

Behind the electric gates off the Blackhill Road out of Glenealy sits the Ballinaberney Stud, where Michael Dawnay came to live a few years ago in lofty splendour.

Michael is old-school horse mad, a man who would hunt every day of the week if he could, his bookshelves crammed with books about equestrian heroes, four- and two-legged.

He came to convert what had been a farm into a place devoted to his all-consuming interest, complete with stables and schooling rings.

He has been joined recently on the hill by Jamaican rider Amelia Bailey, a former Caribbean showjumping champion who has been living in Ireland since 2014, when she arrived to study veterinary medicine at UCD.

Together they have added a new string to Wicklow's tourism bow, organising horse treks into the mountains to the west, or down on to the sands of Brittas Bay away in the east.

From the kitchen at Ballinaberney, the view through a gap in the conifer woods across the uplands is sensational - but these business partners are more concerned with the stables than the scenery.

They have 20 horses on the books, animals endowed with a range of experience and temperament so that seasoned trekkers and newcomers alike can be catered for, offering everyone the opportunity to see parts of the county which most people never glimpse. Absolute novices are kept on a lead if necessary.

Amelia is the front woman of the operation they call Wicklow Equi Tours, charged with promoting an enterprise which is attracting interest from all over the world.

Most of those who saddle up are from abroad, with the home market contributing no more than 40 per cent of turnover.

Amelia Bailey appears to have made herself at home in Glenealy, with growing hints of Ireland in her cosmopolitan accent. She is a woman much travelled, born and raised in the sunshine of Jamaica, where her father worked with the shipping companies whose liners called to the island. As a student, she resided for much of the time in the United States.

The first port of call was Florida, where she attended high school. Then she moved on to Boston Northeastern University, mixing international business studies with biology and a work placement at the Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital in Kentucky, one of the most illustrious veterinary hospitals in the world. The time with Rood & Riddle helped to steer her towards becoming a vet as she returned to the West Indies to enrol at the St George's University in Grenada.

This by happy chance opened the way for a move to Ireland and eventually to the joys of Ballinaberney. The university has connections with both Scotland and Ireland, with Amelia setting off for one to finish her course, before ending up in the other.

'I was supposed to go to Edinburgh but something drew me here, to Dublin,' she says and it is a decision which she did not regret as it brought her back to horses.

'Of course I miss my family in Jamaica and my animals back home. Jamaican food, I definitely miss that too, but the culture here in Ireland is very similar and Irish people are very friendly. It reminds me of home back in Jamaica,' she says of Ballinaberney's location with hills on hand and the beach not too far away. 'But this is better here because the horses are on the spot - contact 365.'

She reckons that she has been riding since she was six - her first pony was called Sam - and she was a star for her native country as a teenager in showjumping. 'I was champion girl,' she recalls proudly of her time in Caribbean competition. 'It's a great sport for kids and it has been my passion.'

The other half of the team is Michael Dawnay, who set up Equi Tours three years back, basing the enterprise on lines similar to one in France, where customers were invited to trek or to venture out on to the roads of Normandy in gypsy caravans. In Ireland, there are no caravans while accommodation is provided in local hotels, whenever the rooms are not all taken by wedding guests.

Michael is convinced that the Wicklow tourism economy is being hamstrung by a lack of hotel space. It was last August that a Jamaican customer was among a party which he introduced to the sands at Brittas, a customer with whom he struck up an immediate rapport as they recognised the interest they have in common.

Amelia clearly was clearly at home in equestrian company and, as her course at UCD came to an end, she was looking for fresh challenges. The proprietor asked her to stick around in Glenealy and ride out, and she happily declared herself available for the unexpected gig. Amelia may have been impressed by the beach when she really enjoyed the day out with five pals but, as she stuck around to look at the commercial side of things, she saw something that required some fine tuning.

'It needed a woman's touch,' she laughs as she considers the state of business at Wicklow Equi Tours. 'And it is still work in progress.' The result of her arrival at the end of last summer has been a sustained marketing drive that includes increased presence on social media and a big effort being put into simply getting the word out around the world.

Traditional printed brochures are still part of the armoury, proclaiming the lure of 'five days of varied terrain trekking… The rides include both the tranquillity of the Vales of Glenmalure and Clara, and the exhilaration of galloping the length of the golden-sanded beach of Brittas.'

Small wonder that potential customers are itching to pull on their jodhpurs.

The tours, a different one each day over five consecutive days, spend just one day on the sand, with most of the time passed up in the hills on routes through trees that Michael has picked out.

'It's spectacular and the further you go in to the mountains, the better the views,' says Amelia selling her wares to tourists who want something different to do during their time in Ireland.

With Glendalough's reputation global, it is no secret that the Garden County has large tracts of magnificent countryside, so her job is to persuade them that the best way to see all this beauty is on horseback. They are coming at her invitation from the US, from France, from Germany, from the UK, and they are going up Carrick Mountain, around Laragh and as far as Glenmalure.

'The bookings are coming in thick and fast,' she reports.

Punters who have already enjoyed themselves have included an intrepid 68-year-old who rolled up the Blackhill Road all the way from Washington DC, her record soon to be passed by a 78-year-old (also from the States) who is booked in for a summer trail ride.

Young or old, they all must accept that it occasionally rains in Ireland and that they have to be prepared to plough on through the wet, though sheltered much of the way by Coillte's trees.

The winter is off-season for tourism, allowing Amelia to fine tune the Equi Tours website and compete in hunter trials aboard 16-year-old Miss Murphy, which is one of the Dawnay string of horses.

Meanwhile, Mick himself is routinely out in the field several days each week with several hunts, including a regular commute west to serve as master with the Roscommon Hunt.

He had been seven years in Glenealy, returning from his decade long stint in Normandy to convert what had been a farm into a stud, which somehow evolved into the current undertaking.

He relishes the notion of exploring Wicklow's uplands on horseback with only the minimum time spent on tarred roads.

His own love of horses was acquired at an early age during a childhood spent in the north of County Dublin where his mentor - a man referred to as Captain Daly - favoured open spaces of the Phoenix Park as the ideal place for lessons. 'Horses are all I ever did,' he ponders, happy to have found a kindred spirit in the woman from Jamaica, whom he considers a brave and accomplished horsewoman.

He delights in drawing people from all quarters to set off on the trails that he has devised for them.

One day, he had riders from France, Italy, Poland and Germany with him, a group who had no real common language, yet who returned to base all the best of friends.

As someone who rides practically every day, he derives good-natured amusement from the muscle strains experienced by the novices or by those returning to the saddle after many years away.

Despite the stretching exercises he advises, they really do begin to walk like John Wayne though they still come back for more, day after day:

'Horses unite people.'

Bray People